J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Spy Behind Home Plate: How Moe Berg Back-Stopped the Free World

Catchers are considered the quarterbacks of baseball. They are the brains running the game on the field. That is why catchers have been more successful transitioning to managers than other position players or pitchers. It turns out catchers also made good secret agents. Granted, we only have a sample of one, but he was significant. Morris “Moe” Berg’s sporting and clandestine careers are chronicled in Aviva Kempner’s documentary The Spy Behind Home Plate, which opens this Friday in DC.

Berg was the son of Jewish immigrants, but he was as assimilated as he could be. He was an athlete and a scholar, who graduated from Princeton and Columbia Law at a time when the Ivy League was a bastion of WASPiness. His father was less than thrilled with his choice of a career in the Major Leagues, but Berg developed some interesting sidelines, such as appearing on the quiz show Information Please and spying for the OSS, the WWII-era predecessor of the CIA.

Berg’s work with “Wild Bill” Donovan at the OSS was covered quite well in Ben Lewin’s narrative drama, The Catcher was a Spy. However, Kempner and company offer up a fuller life portrait, including the intriguing tidbit regarding his field work in Latin America on behalf of Nelson Rockefeller’s Good Neighbor initiative, which could be a promising premise for a TV show, even though it would have to be largely fictionalized (truth is for documentarians).

Of course, centerpiece of any film about Moe Berg will be his work investigating Werner Heisenberg and the German atomic bomb project. Kempner confirms the third act of Lewin’s film to the letter, while bringing in Copenhagen playwright Michael Frayn for some classy commentary. Refreshingly, the documentary gives all due credit to Donovan and the men and women of the OSS for their patriotism and sacrifice (but not William Casey, in a conspicuous oversight). Regardless, it is nice to see the film explore the trust that developed between FDR and Donovan, an outspoken Republican critic of the New Deal.

Indeed, the agents of the OSS were heroes, most definitely including Berg. Frankly, the learned player is worthy of emulation in many respects. Apparently, he was also a bit eccentric. In a nice balancing act, Kempner establishes his social awkwardness, without belaboring the point. Altogether, it is a fascinating portrait of an extraordinary life. Highly recommended, The Spy Behind Home Plate opens this Friday (5/24) in DC, at the Avalon and next Friday (5/31) in New York, at the Quad.

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